I’ve really fancied some Dungeons & Dragons themed gaming after last weekend’s tabletop sessions, so I’ve dipped back into both Neverwinter and Dungeons & Dragons Online over the last few days. They’re very different games, although both feature on the more ‘action’ end of the combat spectrum for MMORPGs. As I’ve thought about them, I’ve been pondering the tension between setting and systems and the very different qualities presented in these two games.
By settings I mean the setting for the action in each game’s story, the fantasy world used by the developers as backdrop to the game. DDO bases much of its levelling content in my personal favourite D&D campaign setting, the magitek themed world of Eberron. The game does a very good job of capturing flavours of the setting, elemental ships flying overhead and some very good sound design to capture the hustle and jungle-choked ‘exoticism’ of the distant frontier town of Stormreach. Later content, that I’ve never reached, does a cross over with the Forgotten Realms – Neverwinter’s home turf. The problem I have always had with DDO is the highly instanced nature of the game, the lack of “open world” exploration leaves the world feeling disjointed and the focus on action combat dungeon-delving leaves the areas we do see lacking depth.
Neverwinter, as fans of D&D will know from the title, is based in the Forgotten Realms. Arguably the best known of D&D’s campaign settings, it’s had considerably more promotion via books and computer games than any other. The game does an excellent job of bringing this particular version of D&D and the Realms to life, for example the spellplague; such themes are tackled in-game as part of quest-lines. It’s easily missed if you’re unaware of the lore behind the game but some care was taken over putting details into the world, there are even lore objects to collect as you adventure.
Systems here refers to the gameplay, especially the combat, again there’s a split because of the significant differences between 3rd and 4th editions of D&D upon which the games are loosely based (DDO and Neverwinter respectively).
DDO has possibly the best character creation system I have ever come across, the layers of customisation are numerous. Of course, I’ll state up front that I actually really like 3rd edition D&D as a ruleset, so it’s hardly surprising I like this very careful translation of tabletop rules into a real-time combat 3D system. Some of the most fun fights I’ve ever had were in this game because the heady mix of class abilities, magical items and iconic monsters works so very well. Movement abilities, a myriad of weapon enchantments and effects, multiple resistances and status effects, tactical and utility spells of all kinds; there are so many options on how to play a character and how to defeat challenges. This complexity can be overwhelming and fights can seem unfair as “come prepared” is a bit of mantra for this game’s content. For example if you don’t have fire resistance and are fighting fire elementals, then you’ll probably need a good amount of healing on standby.
Neverwinter is loosely based on 4th edition, but with a heavier action-combat MMO design brief. You only get seven abilities at a time, selected out of combat from a much wider pool. Most if not all of the powers have varied effects and some have truly satisfying graphics (Arcane Singularity is one of my favourite spells ever in any game). That allows for meaningful character customisation decisions as you level and develop a character, but it keeps combat a simpler more timing-dependent vibe. Combat in Neverwinter is less about exact solutions to known problems and more about well-timed dodging and interrupting the bad stuff.
A proper comparative review of the two games would be multi-part and very long as there would be so many aspects to look at. I do think interestingly, despite the age gap in the two games release (2006 and 2013), that both games are very grind-oriented. DDO has very slow leveling and not enough content to avoid repeating the same dungeons, indeed with the difficulty level selector it positively encourages repetition. By contrast Neverwinter has pretty rapid leveling (at least until level 60-70), yet it has monumental grinding in the Asian MMO inspired enchantment and gear-upgrade systems.
For all the criticisms of Neverwinter as a MMO (grindy, cash-shop focus, lack of class balancing, etc), I do find it a very fun game to play casually. That’s probably the important point to emphasis, since I’ve never heavily invested in the endgame, I’ve not needed to engage with the gearing to any serious extent. Leveling up an artifact or two and refining some enchantments isn’t that hard to do with the materials that you get by just playing. But I’m well aware that there are layers of grind beyond my experience. Massively OP has an article about lockboxes this weekend, Neverwinter is oft cited for its ‘lockbox spam’, but I can happily ignore that aspect of the game. I have three characters in the level 60-70 range, so getting at least one to the 70 cap is a goal for the summer this year.
DDO is an old-school MMO yet has satisfying and in some ways modern-feeling combat. It’s a game I’d love to play more but really grouping is such a big part of the game’s design, it feels wrong to solo in DDO even if it’s much more possible now. Casual grouping isn’t so easy in DDO, the group content tends to be more complex and potentially longer than the equivalent in other MMOs (Neverwinter included). I’ve shied away from PUGging over recent years in all games, but it’s something I’m considering more just to get past progression blocks, so maybe I’ll get my Paladin past level 10 in DDO finally, some day…